'There are no Asians in Asia, only people with national identities, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, and Filipino. But on this side of the Pacific, there are Asian Americans', wrote the historian Ronald Takaki. This quote juxtaposes the diversity and heterogeneity of individuals in Asia with the American reality of their pan-ethnic conflation.
In my recently published Identities article, 'There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States', I explore this idea empirically with a longitudinal study of Chinese international students and their racialisation in the United States. I argue that it is through a process of racialisation – a process that involves learning about the concept of 'race' and one’s own social categorisation under such a paradigm – that those arriving from a country like China or Japan could eventually come to identify as 'Asian' or 'Asian American'.
My study draws on two-stage interviews with 15 Chinese international students. The first interviews were conducted within two weeks of their arrival in the United States. I did so in order to capture the Chinese students’ initial understandings of race and their racial identities, before much acculturation processes could take place. I found, not surprisingly, that most Chinese students at this stage identified strongly with their national identity as Chinese and dismissed the category 'Asian' as a label of little significance to them.
I then waited six months before carrying out a second round of interviews. What I found were striking changes. Consider, for example, the following quote from a respondent named Ruby:
'Before [in China], I don’t really define myself as Asian because you are in Asia. So you don’t realize it. But here, I think because we all look the same – the face – so there’s many things we can relate ... It’s just I never realized it before. But now I think it’s because, hmm, how people treat you – the native American people treat you. Or, as I said, because we look the same, so I get to make friends with – I actually never expect that I would make friends with Asian Americans or people from Japan, that it would be easier to make friends with them than white people. I think it’s because of the community. And because of the sympathy. Because I think you may feel that, oh, she’s in the same position as me.'
This response represents a significant pivot from the first interview when Ruby dismissed the label 'Asian' and insisted on emphasising her Chinese identity. Crucially, Ruby is quite explicit that it was her experiences in the United States that engendered this newfound awareness of the significance of her Asian identity, citing, for instance, how 'native American people treat you', and her consequent feelings that other Asians in the United States are 'in the same position as me'.
I argue that this reveals the underlying process of racialisation in the United States not just for Chinese international students, but migrants more generally. Foreigners typically arrive in the United States with a limited understanding of US conceptualisations of race or the social significance of their own racial status. However, over time, through experiences living and interacting in US society, they become acculturated to US racial norms. It is through such racialisation processes that Chinese international students 'become' Asian in the United States.
Blog post by Keitaro Okura, Yale University, USA
Read the full article: Okura, Keitaro. There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1663053
On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, killing five and injuring 264. In the absence of information about who the bombers were, Salon.com published liberal commentator David Sirota’s piece 'Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American'. Sirota argued that if the bombers turned out to be white, Muslims would be protected from an inevitable anti-Muslim backlash. A few days later, the bombers’ identities were revealed as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, children of Chechen refugees who came to the United States when they were 16 and 8 years old, respectively. Interestingly, the brothers were phenotypically white and, as conservative commentators online were fond of saying, quite literally Caucasian (i.e. from the Caucuses). They were also, however, Muslims.
Sirota’s article provoked a firestorm across conservative media, and Sirota was accused of being race obsessed and blind to the threat of Jihadist terrorism. In our Identities article, '‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity', we analysed conservative responses to Sirota’s article, as well as the ensuing debate about whether the Tsarnaevs were, in fact, the white Americans Sirota had hoped for.
Given the widely held view that the brothers were phenotypically white, we were surprised to find that this question was shrouded in ambiguity. On the one hand, conservatives referred to the brothers’ whiteness to affirm a distinction between race and Islam, and to argue that the latter was a dangerous political ideology that people choose to believe in regardless of their race. On the other hand, however, and despite this apparently non-racial criticism of Islam, conservative responses to Sirota were permeated by accusations of anti-white racism, race treachery, white guilt, and even discussions of race suicide. We sought to explain this contradiction between intense expressions of racialised threat with avowed commitments to a non-racial critique of Islam.
We argue that reactions to Sirota’s article, as well as the liberal position he is considered to represent, reflect a deeply engrained view that there is a racial war between American whites and Muslims. The accommodation of Islam by white liberals is therefore cast as a direct threat to the United States, which white Americans are deemed responsible to protect. In other words, participating and agreeing to the terms of Muslim racialisation is central to the performance of a hegemonic white racial identity. Failure to perform this combativeness is deemed tantamount to race treachery and facilitating a form of racial suicide. Our critical contribution is that while previous scholarship on Islamophobia has focused on the cultural or phenotypical characteristics of Muslims that mark them as ‘other’, our argument shows that the racialisation of Muslims also occurs through a contested process of white racial formation.
Moreover, we identify a critical weakness in popular liberal critiques of Islamophobia. The critique deployed by Sirota, as well as other liberal commentators in the debate, hinged on a racial distinction between Muslims and whiteness. It was only through this (racialising) distinction that liberals were able to make operative the view that anti-Muslim sentiments after terrorist attacks reflect a form of racism. Liberals struggled to articulate a coherent critique in the face of the strategic use conservatives made of the Tsarnaevs’ ambiguous racial identity, emphasising the need for political counter-discourses to the white supremacist Islamophobia described in our Identities article. Alongside a more refined concept of racism attuned to relational racial formation processes, a primary goal must be disentangling whiteness from American citizenship -- a struggle with stark dimensions in the current moment.
Blog post by Jake Watson, Boston University, USA; Saher Selod, Simmons College, USA; and Nazli Kibria, Boston University, USA
Read the full article: Watson, Jake; Selod, Saher & Kibria, Nazli. ‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1397964
How much should biology matter to our identities? When it comes to race and ethnicity, many people believe there are biological differences between groups. Actually, despite what many think, geneticists have proven that all humans are more than 99% genetically similar regardless of race. Even though these discoveries made in 2000 were widely reported in the news and in academic settings, most people (including academics!) continue to use assumptions that biology is relevant to determining who we are and to what groups we belong.
In today’s society, many people believe they are 'colourblind' and that we are 'post-race' — in other words, they think race shouldn’t matter anymore, that racism is a thing of the past, and that everyone has an equal chance at succeeding in society. Another part of 'colourblind' thinking is that we have changed the way we talk about race. Today it is far more common to use code words such as 'illegals', 'inner-city', or even to talk about culture as a stand-in for talking about racial groups.
Sometimes, we continue to use the same old assumptions regarding race and ethnicity that shaped some of the most extreme forms of racism (like imperialist invasion by Europeans, U.S. slavery and the Holocaust) but use them in subtle ways. One of these assumptions is the idea that race and ethnicity are biological categories, and my research shows that society is adapting by creating subtle ways of marking racial and ethnic groups as biologically different.
My Identities article, 'Bio-logics of Jewishness: media constructions of the nuances of race and ethnicity', focuses on how major newspapers write about Jewish people in ways that rely on the belief that Jews are biologically different, which I call 'bio-logics' (a play on the words biological and logic). Articles published from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times from 2000–2010 show that there are two major ways that 'bio-logics' are used to talk about Jewishness. First, despite trends in 'colourblind' ways of talking about race and ethnicity in indirect ways, these news articles still occasionally talked about Jewish biological difference from other racial and ethnic groups in explicit ways. Some of these news articles would mention DNA tests that could 'prove' one was Jewish, and even making arguments that having 'Jewish DNA' would compel people to have an unexplained lifelong interest in Jewish culture. But what was more common in these news articles was that there were more indirect or subtle ways that Jews were defined as biologically different.
These subtle claims that biology determines Jewishness included briefly mentioning Jewish family members (parents or more distant ancestors), but never actually referring directly to someone as a Jew themselves. In fact, almost all of the times that news articles wrote briefly about someone’s Jewish ancestors, no other content about someone’s Jewish identity was discussed. Oftentimes these news stories were about a business, person, artist or celebrity, and not about someone’s life as a Jew or experiences of Jewish identity, culture, religious practice, antisemitism or other relevant aspects of being Jewish. In some of the news articles, if someone had distant Jewish ancestors they were defined as Jews, even if they practiced an entirely different religion and were raised in a completely different culture, such as Mormonism.
Some of these subtle 'bio-logics' might seem harmless on the surface, but I believe they are an indication that how we discuss race is shifting, not only for Jews but a variety of racial and ethnic groups. It is crucial that research examines changes in how society talks (or writes) about race and ethnicity, because these shifts will impact how inequalities function and how people experience and define their identities.
Blog post by Emma Gonzalez-Lesser, University of Connecticut, USA
Read the full article: Gonzalez-Lesser, Emma. Bio-logics of Jewishness: media constructions of the nuances of race and ethnicity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1617529
If national security is in danger, the state can declare a state of emergency. This step will suspend normal legal procedures that allow the authorities to regain order and control.
What if politicians allege that the culture and identity of migrants and refugees are threatening the cultural cohesion and economic welfare of the nation-state? What if political leaders declare a national security emergency in order to get political support and funding for a wall?
In my Identities article, 'Denmark’s blond vision and the fractal logics of a nation in danger', I show a new way to understand neo-nationalism, which is the kind that occurs within established nation-states, through the notion of a ‘nation in danger’, in relation to racialisation. The notion of the nation in danger is a specific logic that motivates a large ‘white’ majority of Danes in their perception and treatment of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and Danes of colour. It also separates for them who belongs to Denmark and who does not on the basis of racial, cultural and ethnic features.
The problem with this dominant way of thinking is not the desire for self-determination itself, but the illusion that you can only be at home, and can only be understood, among people like yourself. This belief has now become predatory, a state of alertness that informs popular thinking and the rationale behind the competition among political parties and influencers.
Accordingly, eating pork; clothing; jewelry; language skills; physical presence; the right to speak; number of children; choice of public schools; freedom of religion; where to live and what to watch on television are some of the targets for regulation. The rhetoric points primarily to Muslim ways of living, but the net is cast widely for so-called non-Westerners regardless of whether they are newcomers or were born in Denmark with broader immigrant histories.
Such competition has revealed tensions between legal and moral demands. By making claims that would be unconstitutional if tested in court, parties dominate the conflict-prone news media coverage and contribute to further neo-nationalist, racialised recruitment of voters.
In 2006, my team researched the coverage of Islam peaking with the Danish Muhammad Cartoon affair in the Danish newspaper Jylland’s Posten. The conclusion was startling. In contrast with the era before political communication became an industry and commercial revenue shifted from newspapers to the internet, the public sphere was now no longer used for dialogue but had become a space for battle and confrontation.
Spinning news is a weapon in a terrain where enemies are known and attacked. With the friend-foe philosophy of neo-conservative fathers Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt, there is no limit to how far the uncompromising stance can go and how radical the language can become, since confrontation is sought and is, ultimately, the responsible way to do ‘the political’. The aim of such politics is the containment of the opponent at any price. This friend-foe scheme now forms the backbone of common-sense reasoning among the majority of the Danish voters. Accordingly, politicians go out of their way to please these voters because their political lives depend on them.
The Danish Minister’s ‘restrictive identity policies’ on the official website is a neo-nationalist celebration of who belongs and who does not by creating separate rules, routines, and language for the two groups. The political demand for restrictive identity policies can never be fully satisfied, but the Danish People’s Party has insisted on them in political negotiations since 2001; the ruling government and opposition have adopted the measures.
Today, we can speak about an extreme right that has become mainstream, hence mainstream extremism or hegemonic majority that I contend is guided by the nation in danger logic. Politicians and most of the news media are nourishing the majority view. However, calls for a state of emergency do not apply to this majority or those who reach for arms and threats of violence. They are protected by free speech absolutists and the police. The enemy is still ‘Islamists’, who are seen as foreigners and approached as individual and collective life-threating foes.
Blog post by Peter Hervik, Aalborg University, Denmark
Read the full article: Hervik, Peter. Denmark’s blond vision and the fractal logics of a nation in danger. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1587905